One of the last original tenants of Columbia Center is going out of business, a casualty of climbing rents and rising minimum wage.
The Carmelcorn Shop will close June 27, bringing an end to 46 years of the caramel corn, jelly beans, Italian soda, cotton candy and espresso beloved by generations of shoppers. The tiny shop often served as a haven for bored spouses escaping from family shopping expeditions.
Owner Erin Luckman became Carmelcorn’s third owner when she bought the business and its lease for 832 square feet near the J.C. Penney entrance in 2011.
Luckman said she’d hoped to mark Carmelcorn’s golden anniversary in 2020.
“I was really hoping to hit 50,” she said.
The original owners, Jackie and Roger Ellig, opened the sweets shop a few months after the Columbia Center mall debuted in the fall of 1969. It is one of the few original tenants in the retail center, though in a different location. The store moved in the late ‘80s.
Luckman said the rising cost of doing business drove her decision to close four years shy of the 50-year mark.
In the five years she’s owned the store, the rent increased nearly a third, to $4,200 a month. And Washington’s minimum wage rose more than 9 percent, to $9.47 per hour.
A mom and pop business can’t pay that.
Erin Luckman, owner of The Carmelcorn Shop
Expenses overwhelmed the business, where an $8 transaction is considered high.
“A mom and pop business can’t pay that,” she said.
Luckman said she was unable to negotiate a workable rent figure with the mall’s Indianapolis-based owner, Simon Property Group.
And costs were still rising.
Her lease includes an automatic 6.5 percent annual increase, with bumps every January and July. In November, Washington voters will consider raising the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2020.
“There’s no way I could ever do that,” she said. She has five part-time employees. And Luckman said she lacks the resources to move the business to another spot.
“I’m going to spend time with my grandchildren,” she said.
Columbia Center management issued a short statement confirming that Carmelcorn is shutting down and expressing gratitude for its long-term tenancy, though it wouldn’t allow the Herald inside for a photo of the store.
“As one of Columbia Center’s original stores, we appreciate everything The Carmelcorn Shop and their staff have provided mall patrons over many years,” it said.
722,000 square feet
98 % leased
For Luckman, The Carmelcorn Shop was chiefly a labor of love.
She moved to Kennewick as an infant and remembers her father taking her there as a young child. Later, she took her own daughter.
After attending Kennewick High School, she worked as a hairstylist near the candy shop. In time, she struck up a friendship with its then-owner.
Luckman said she’d never liked coffee, which her friend took as a challenge to brew up a cup she’d drink. It worked and Luckman became a regular.
When the owners wanted to retire, Luckman and her husband thought it sounded like a good idea. Years of standing and cutting hair had left her with shoulder issues and she was ready to tackle a new challenge.
The first year brought unexpected challenges, including major investments in new refrigerators, coffee gear and other equipment. She took on $50,000 in debt to make a go. The debt is mostly paid off, but not entirely.
“I’ve loved it,” she said. “I still enjoy it.”
Hopefully, somebody else will open a popcorn store there.
Barry Hatcher, Concessions Supply
Luckman said regular customers and “wonderful” vendors, including Pepsi and Concession Supplies, were always her partners. Her Pepsi representative bought back her unused canisters and Spokane-based Concessions Supplies even found a buyer. The deal fell through because of the high labor and rent costs.
“The vendors have just been amazing,” she said.
Barry Hatcher, a co-founder of Concessions Supply, lamented the loss of a longtime client. It provides popcorn and other items to Carmelcorn.
Hatcher confirmed his team attempted to find a buyer.
“Hopefully, somebody else will open a popcorn store there,” he said.
It is unlikely the Carmelcorn space, though relatively small, will remain vacant long. The 722,000-square-foot mall is more than 98 percent leased, according to Simon Property Group’s 2015 annual report.